Is Waterboarding Torture? A Catholic Moral Analysis


This week, the world is abuzz with the Senate report on “enhanced interrogation techniques.” As Catholics, we believe in the dignity of the human person. Torture is intrinsically evil, and thus, forbidden. The question arises when we ask whether these techniques constitute torture from a Catholic moral perspective.

The Catechism (2297) defines torture as use of “physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred.” Before going on, I think I need to clarify what “violence” means in this context as its meaning is a little different from our everyday use of it – in vernacular English, “moral violence” is an oxymoron. In his Modern Catholic Dictionary, Fr John Hardin defines violence as: “Physical or psychological force used to compel one to act against one’s choice, or against an inclination to choose in a certain way.” Violence is not about how much damage was done to the person but how forcibly or coercively changed their will was due to the actions of another. For example, showing a criminal a video that appears to be his wife being dismembered is torture even if the video is all special effects – this is moral violence.

Is Waterboarding Torture? A Catholic Moral Analysis

An example of the effects of one practice that might be torture (if used for extended periods).

There is a lot of debate in the secular press over the effectiveness of such methods versus gentler methods. We, however, know there are moral absolutes. No matter how effective waterboarding or other methods were in getting confessions, if they are torture we can never consent.

Now, let’s examine the various methods used. First, since these people were guilty or highly suspected of committing serious offenses, the government had the right and duty to imprison them and this is not torture. This includes keeping them in prison and restricting their diet (so long as they provided them with sufficient calories to survive on). However, confining a prisoner to an exceptionally small space for an extended period could exert excessive coercion and constitute torture (from what I read, it seems likely but not certain that the CIA’s use of confinement was torture).

The next issue is sleep deprivation by keeping them in bright rooms for extended periods of time. Police have the right to use a certain amount of moral violence so long as it does not overwhelm or coerce the free will of the victim. For instance, most police interrogation rooms are lighted in a way that makes it uncomfortable for those they’re interrogating; police can throw you in a holding cell on suspicion of a crime without actually charging you for 24 hours – I think we can all agree that such means are not torture. Now, there is not a clear line where this becomes torture and the CIA kept someone up for 48 straight hours, which is probably torture, but I hesitate to give a definitive judgement.

Is Waterboarding Torture? A Catholic Moral Analysis

A demonstration of waterboarding

Waterboarding is clearly torture. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed lasted 75 seconds to hold the “world record.” Any unwilled suffering that changes the will of a criminal mastermind like him in 75 seconds is obviously violence in the moral sense. The fact that it makes your body think it’s drowning may also make it violence in the physical sense. However, even if it is simply moral violence, making someone believe they are seconds from dying is sufficient moral violence to constitute torture. Remember that torture is about how coercive the person’s will is and not how much damage it does to their body. From what I understand, waterboarding makes you feel like drowning, but you’re not really drowning; thus I would consider it moral violence and not physical violence. It is obviously force used to compel him to reveal information against his own choice.

There is also the issue of rectal feeding and hydration. I have to admit I don’t understand this enough to make a serious judgement. I don’t think I need to point out beating people to get confessions is torture.

Although it is clear that the CIA waterboarded 3 criminals, I think it is important to note that in comparison with those countries the US is fighting, the USA is still morally superior. Torturing three criminals is repugnant, but committing genocide against innocent people (as ISIS has done) is many times more horrendous.

Note: Between writing the first draft and this final draft, I spoke with a priest who is heading to Rome to teach Moral Theology and he also had trouble clearly defining where legitimate coercion ends and torture begins.

EDIT: several people have asked me why I have the last paragraph comparing the USA to it’s enemies. 1. I want to remain outside politics and I think this helps avoid my writing being interpreted as taking sides in a political debate.  2. Despite doing some evil stuff, when you compare the rap sheet of the USA and it’s current enemies (ISIS, Al Qaeda, Syria, etc.), the USA clearly has less evil (I don’t think a complete analysis is needed).

Fr Matthew P. Schneider, LC

Teens need to experience Christ. I am a Catholic religious priest with the Legion of Christ who tries to help them do that. Part of doing that is running this blog. Currently I'm stationed in the DC Metro area preparing material for (Regnum Christi Spirituality Center), studying an advanced Theology degree, and helping youth ministry freelance.

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